LAS VEGAS – Basketball fans poured into the Thomas & Mack Center on Monday night hoping to catch one of the most compelling matchups on the NBA Summer League’s 2022 program.
In many ways, Orlando vs. Oklahoma City was shaping up to be the main event of the 10-day showcase in Las Vegas, pitting No. 1 draft pick Paolo Banchero against No. 2 selection Chet Holmgren nearly seven months after those two collided in Vegas as young college stars.
But the sizzle of another potential Banchero-Holmgren matchup was extinguished hours before tipoff when Orlando scratched the rookie from its Summer League roster, preserving Banchero for more crucial regular-season minutes.
Holmgren still managed to dazzle as a solo act, grabbing the crowd’s attention on more than a few occasions while helping Oklahoma City secure an 84-81 victory on UNLV’s campus.
The Gonzaga product added more highlights to his growing Summer League reel, scoring 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting and 2-of-4 from the 3-point line while grabbing 10 rebounds. Holmgren also had four turnovers, two assists and two blocked shots.
“It’s always great to get a win, no matter the circumstances,” Holmgren said. “We got up early tonight, let ’em get away from us at points but it’s just more for us to get in the gym and work on. We’re a young group so we’ve got a lot to learn, but we’re embracing it for sure.”
Early in the first quarter, Holmgren caught the ball at the top of the arc, took a jab step to his right creating separation from Emmanuel Terry and stepped back before unloading a 3-pointer.
Holmgren dunked three times, twice on interior passes from second-year point guard Josh Giddey and once more on a high lob from Santa Clara product Jalen Williams that required the big man to use every part of his 7-foot-6 wingspan to collect the ball and guide it into the basket.
Late in the second half, Holmgren overpowered ex-Saint Mary’s point guard Tommy Kuhse for another easy bucket that extended OKC’s lead to six points and after Orlando missed multiple game-tying 3-pointers, he grabbed the final rebound with 1.4 seconds left to secure a double-double.
“Like I said before, it’s easy with him to try and do a lot of things with him or try to do a lot of things for him,” Oklahoma City Summer League coach Kameron Woods said. “But I’ve been impressed with his ability to kind of find his own stuff within our flow. … You’re never like pushing a button for him, you’re more giving him an environment where he can grow and be successful and he’s so skilled he can find different ways to get his game into whatever it is we’re doing. So that’s been really impressive.”
Holmgren occasionally ran into trouble against Orlando’s smaller guards, who repeatedly swiped at the bigger rookie, causing a few of his four turnovers.
As Holmgren encounters more situations in the NBA, Woods said he’ll learn how to be stronger with the ball in his hands.
“I think there’s a lot of ways he can improve in that area,” Woods said. “I think part of it is the situations we’re putting him in. I think part of it is he’s so skilled he’s seeing a lot of different looks, which is important for us.
“As he grows through these experiences, he’s played against bigger guys, he’s played against smaller guys, he’s played against pressure, he’s played against drop. Not a lot of people can say that through eight games, so he’s learning through that, we’re learning through that. The thing I’ve been impressed with him and the group is how resilient he’s been and how he’s still continued to find ways to be effective and be aggressive.”
Holmgren anticipated a steep learning curve at the next level but the 7-footer’s resolve may be an underrated aspect of his game. The Minnesota native had four turnovers in the first half but didn’t commit another in the final 20 minutes.
“I came in with an open mindset, open to learning what they want me to learn and being open to what they’re coaching me,” he said. “That’s a lot of things, I don’t want to put everything out there, the game plan of what I’m going to work on. But I’m back in the gym as soon as possible.”
Generally speaking, the positive moments have overshadowed the occasional miscues.
“His first day in training camp he came out and he was just kind of killing with inside, outside, doing a little bit of everything,” teammate Aaron Wiggins said. “He’s a great rim protector, does it all.”
With four Summer League games now under his belt, it’s unclear if Holmgren will be active for OKC’s remaining contests, on Wednesday against Sacramento (5 p.m. PT) and on Friday against Golden State (4 p.m. PT).
“Everything is going to be intentional with us,” Woods said. “I don’t want to get into plans for any of our guys right now. Everybody that plays, there’s going to be an intention behind it. I don’t want to get into specifics about who’s playing and when.”
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